Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century Overview - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

B. G. MacCarthy (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Cogent Influences," in Women Writers: Their Contribution to the English Novel, 1621-1744, 1944. Reprint by Cork University Press, 1945, pp. 11-46.

[In the following excerpt, MacCarthy examines the treatment of several genres by women writers of the seventeenth century and considers how the experience of adversity and prejudice influenced women's writing during this time.]

Women's contribution to literature is no arbitrary or artificial distinction. However much the reformer may welcome, or the conservative lament, the growth of a harmonious sharing of ideals between men and women, that growth has been a hard-fought struggle. It has been an escape from a prison, which, when it did not entirely shut out the greater world, at least enclosed a little world of education meant for women, a literature adapted to the supposed limitations of their intellect, and a course of action prescribed by the other sex….

When women at last began to seek after literary expression, it was inevitable that they should attempt to tell a story. There has always been, and there always will remain, deep-rooted in the human heart a desire to hear something told of the world without us and within. From these roots in varying forms and often strangely transmuted grew all education and the arts. For men it was a transition from telling to writing, and for women the transition was no less long, and like their opportunities for literacy, took place far later. Women as listeners influenced the art of story-telling long before they actually shared in it, and naturally the growth of the novel gained in variety and verisimilitude when women were given a place in the subject-matter. The novel is a very improbable development of the Odyssey, but it is an inevitable development of Daphnis and Chloe. Beowulf and his fire-drake are almost as far from the art of fiction as they are from probability, and such sagas could be of no interest to women. It is not the titanic figure, with his deathdealing sword, invincible in his destiny, that a woman loves, in fact or in fiction—or at any rate, not until he has shown himself vulnerable to human emotions. Victorious Perseus, flying through the clouds, does not win a woman's interest until he sees Andromeda and comes down to earth. This descent from free fancy to actuality is, in a word, the evolution of the novel.

Women make their entrance into fiction with the development of the short tale such as the novella, which had love-interest as its pivotal point. Marie de France, writing in England in the twelfth century, found in her episodic lays exactly the mould which suited her, and she used it with such ease that she had scope to develop her technique and to create from the oft-told tales of the minstrels works of art which not only endured, but served as an inspiration to later writers. Margaret of Navarre, writing in prose, found the short tale equally suited to her powers, and in her case also, ease in technique allowed her genius to express itself with a power perhaps not surpassed by Bandello or Boccaccio. These women excelled because they were, for the most part, retelling stories they had heard, but most of all because they had for subject-matter themes and events most familiar, if not in their own lives, then certainly in the lives of those about them.

But alas for the women writers! Daphnis and Chloe, neglected on their pastoral slope, were growing up and developing a stultifying artificiality. Their simple idyll was now to be complicated by rival lovers, perfidy, royalty incognito, shipwreck, and chivalrous emprises, into a superfluity of characters endlessly involved in a maze of tedious events. And where Sir Philip Sydney led, what could an ambitious niece do but follow? It could not be expected that Lady Mary Wroath would escape the quagmire of the Pastoral Romance, and in fact, she overpassed its pitfalls with far more success than might have been expected. If women were daring even in attempting to write, it is not to be expected, at that stage, that they would have the extreme audacity to become innovators as well. If only, instead of being satisfied with diligently copying the headline set by men, they could have bridged the great gap between romantic and domestic fiction, then not only would the development of the novel have been hastened by hundreds of years, but women would have been able to exert their talents on exactly the subject-matter which they knew best, and consequently there would have been far more women writers. It is obvious that creative imagination, no matter how individual and how varied its power of synthesis, must have material to synthesise, and this material may be real life, or some artistic reproduction of life, or, as is most usual, both. This does not mean that because women's actual experience of life was limited to only one aspect, therefore they could not exercise creative imagination. Certainly they could have done so, as did, for example, the two gifted women already mentioned, and if we wish to understand why women were not at that time actively creative, we must consider the education at their disposal, and we must remember that an ability to read and write is not education, though it may be a means thereto. Such education as women received was nominal, and creative imagination without education is not productive. One must either admit this fact, or else assert that women in bygone ages lacked the kind of imaginative power which later women most obviously possessed. Any view which claims variation in the mental capacity of women at various epochs is quite untenable. On the other hand, any view which explains the dearth of early women-writers by reference to their limited experience, does not need to be disproved. It simply collapses of itself, because it is illogical in theory, and its invalidity is proved by the evidence of the great women-writers who, despite a human sphere as circumscribed as that of their ancestresses, later achieved fame. We know that the material on which creative imagination may work can be found in daily life no matter how limited in extent. Experience need not be wide for human or literary fulfilment, but it must be deep, and, for literary purposes, it must be artistically realised, and it must be expressed. Depth of experience implies depth of character, but does not connote the power of artistic realisation or artistic expression, and it is precisely in this relation that the question of education arises. Creative imagination transforms experience into a work of art, but it can only give artistic form when it is familiar with such forms, and can manipulate the chosen form with ease. It requires training and familiarity with many aspects of one's art before one masters technique, or develops individuality in technique. Nor can one even say that we achieve a work of art merely by giving artistic form to experience, for the truth is that the artist apprehends experience in a fashion which is partly the result of his mental characteristics, but also the result of his artistic training. Perhaps we may say that art is experience realised in a special way and expressed in a corresponding medium. Emily Brontë's experience of actual human life was unusually limited, and yet she produced not only a work of art, but one of unusual power. If it were possible to analyse her genius, one might suggest that it consisted in intensity of experience, in her case mainly imaginative experience, which she realised in literary terms, and embodied in the artistic form she knew best—the art of fiction. But it is worth noting that not only was Emily Brontë endowed with natural genius, but was, for that period, very well educated and very widely read. Yet despite these advantages, which enabled her to use language in a plastic, even in an intuitive way, Wuthering Heights is structurally clumsy, because, of course, a literary education is merely a way by which we recognise and evaluate literary technique, but only by literary experiment can we develop such technique in ourselves. Wuthering Heights also shows that imaginative experience is not in itself a sufficing material for realistic fiction, for it is clear that, though Emily Brontë knew hell and heaven, she did not know how farm-hands talk.

In judging the average woman's chance of success in the writing of fiction, it seems, perhaps, a digression to speak of Emily Brontë, whose genius must always entitle her to be judged apart, but we deliberately choose her, because we wish to show that even such genius cannot arrive at technique without an apprenticeship, and that even such genius cannot safely depend on imaginative intuition, cannot dispense with the necessity for everyday experience. Writing of the essential characteristics of a great novelist, Fielding states the necessity for Genius, Learning, Conversation, and "a good heart." By Genius he means "that power or rather those powers of mind, which are capable of penetrating into all things within our reach and knowledge, and of distinguishing their essential differences." These powers he distinguishes as Invention and Judgment under the collective name of Genius. By Invention Fielding means, not the creative faculty, but quite literally the power of discovery—"a quick and sagacious penetration into the true essence of all the objects of our contemplation. This, I think, can rarely exist without the concomitancy of judgment; for how we can be said to have discovered the true essence of two things, without discerning their difference, seems to me hard to conceive. Now this last is the undisputed province of Judgment."

Of the necessity for learning, Fielding finely says: "Nature can only furnish us with capacity … or the tools of our profession; learning must fit them for use, must direct them in it, and lastly must contribute part at least of the materials. A competent knowledge of history and of the belles-lettres is here absolutely necessary; and without this share of knowledge at least, to affect the character of an historian (i.e., a novelist) is as vain as to endeavour at building a house without timber or mortar, or brick or stone. Homer and Milton, who though they added ornament of numbers to their works, were both historians of our order, were masters of all the learning of their times."

Conversation, by which Fielding meant experience of life, he held to be absolutely indispensable to a novelist: "However exquisitely human nature may have been described by writers, the true practical system can be learnt only in the world." People who write without experience of life are only making a "faint copy of a copy … which can have neither the justness nor spirit of an original. Now this conversation in our historian must be universal, that is with all the ranks and degrees of men, for the knowledge of what is called high life will not instruct him in low, nor, è converso … and though it may be thought that the knowledge of either may sufficiently enable him to describe at least that in which he hath been conversant, yet he will even here fall greatly short of perfection: for the follies of either rank do, in reality, illustrate each other."

But Genius, Learning, and Conversation do not dispense a great novelist from the necessity of having a Good Heart, by which Fielding means humanity.

Applying Fielding's words to women-novelists, their handicaps at once become only too apparent. Genius and a good heart they might have as natural endowment, but learning and "conversation" were beyond their reach long before and long after Fielding's time. These facts prepare us for the low standard very often observable in the novels written by women, but they do not prepare us for the inexplicable way in which women persisted in proving that they could rise above their limitations. It is not feminism, but the merest common-sense to insist that women's contribution to fiction can only be judged in relation to their opportunities. That this standard of judgment is not sufficiently remembered is, perhaps, because so much that women contributed, by its own merit claims equality with the best attainments of men-novelists, and appears to dispense with the special consideration which is actually its due.

That the writing of fiction becomes clumsy hackwork in the hands of the uneducated is proved in the works of large numbers of the women … but we must remember that the art of fiction evolved so slowly and with so many digressions of form and content that there was not, for a long time, any clearly defined standard of what fiction ought to be. This was one reason why women were brave enough to attempt such writing. Women enjoyed stories (particularly love-stories which confirmed their personal view of the focal point of life) and, unlike poetry, unlike essays which called for a cultural mould and commerce in abstractions, a story could be told by anybody who had sufficient gumption to sandwich a middle between a beginning and an end. "To the composition of novels and romances," says Fielding, bitterly, "nothing is necessary but paper, pens, and ink, with the manual capacity of using them." George Eliot, passing judgment, after several centuries, on the large brood of incapable women-novelists of her day, gives the reason thus: "No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction and there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form and yet be beautiful, we have only to pour in the right elements—genuine observation, humour, and passion." But pour them into what? George Eliot does not discriminate between the lack of a cultural mould and the lack of the novelist's technique. However, she expresses very well the danger which lay for women in the very looseness of the fictional medium:

It is precisely this absence of rigid requirements which constitutes the fatal seduction of novel-writing to incompetent women. Ladies who are not wont to be very grossly deceived as to their power of playing on the piano; here certain positive difficulties of execution have to be conquered, and incompetence inevitably breaks down. Every art which has its absolute technique is, to a certain extent, guarded against the intrusions of mere left-handed imbecility. But in novel-writing there are no barriers for incapacity to stumble against, no external criteria to prevent a writer from mistaking foolish facility for mastery.

If this could be said in the middle of the nineteenth century, how much less formulated was the form of the novel, three centuries earlier! And yet one cannot fail to observe that, according as the art of fiction became (as it did) more exigent with advancing years, women continued not only to maintain the required standard, but often to surpass it, and even to contribute to the development of new genres.

It might have been imagined that when Elizabethan fiction developed along the lines of the Pastoral Romance, the picaresque novels, and the guild-tales, that women writers would have retired from the lists, despairing of ever achieving the pseudo-Greek note, the pot-house experience, or the tradesman's touch so necessary respectively to these three types of fiction. Of the three, the Pastoral Romance was the easiest, because though one might not progress with classic grace, one could, at any rate, undulate pleasantly through mazes sufficiently intricate to defy detection. Since pre-Restoration women writers were of the upper-classes, it was not likely that they would choose such plebeian realism as the guild-tales for their literary medium, even if they felt competent to portray that aspect of life, and it was not to be imagined that any female pen would then dare to follow, or could successfully follow a rogue, whether Spanish or English, into the unimagined dens of his villainy. The picaro's swashbuckling attitude to women could not be changed unless by reforming the picaro, and a reformed picaro is a contradiction in terms; therefore, with a delicate flutter, the female pens took refuge in gentle valleys, beside murmuring brooks, where shepherd and shepherdess anticipated the poses of Dresden. Thus Lady Mary Wroath and still later Anne Weamys, both with more success than might be expected in so artificial a type of fiction, and, in the case of the Urania, with realism staring out from the courtly inanities like a pair of honest eyes from a mask.

But although the Pastoral novel was moribund with the passing of the Elizabethan age, its mummied form obtruded itself for long upon the attention of the reading public, and its ghostly accents continued to echo in the style of subsequent prose fiction for a century and a half. The persistence of the Pastoral tradition and the delay in the development of realistic fiction is more easily understandable when we recall that people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries preferred to find life represented before the footlights than in the pages of a book. Women in Shakespeare's time did not write plays, because the blank-verse form called for a technique in language which they did not possess, but with the Restoration period came a spate of women-dramatists, most notably Aphra Behn, Mrs. Centlivre, Mrs. Manley, Mrs. Pix and Mrs. Trotter. These were highly successful in this new medium for story-telling, mainly because drama had taken a different turn, and instead of tragedies in conception too lofty and in form too difficult for women who lacked learning, now the learned sock was off, and the comfortable buskin which had only to find its way through domestic intrigue, fitted the women beyond any possibility of limping. Not only was the subject-matter more congenial, but the prose dialogue most generally used required only the power of brilliant verbal fencing which would be instinctive in a witty woman. Background and dialogue were rudimentary as yet in the novel, and characterisation was so rare as to be almost non-existent. Still, in a prose story it was necessary to sketch some sort of background, to describe the passage of events and to interpolate conversations, or at least to report them. It was necessary to indicate the passage of time, and in all this there was no very clear precedent for one's procedure. Such freedom was an advantage to the original, but the tendency of the more average person would naturally be to imitate a form which had clear rules for guidance. In drama women found such a form, because, though one could transcend certain of the unities, yet they always remained as a reliable framework of construction. These points, no doubt, served to encourage women, and partly account for the increase in women-writers at this period.

But there was another consideration which, from the beginning of women's literary adventuring had loomed large, and greatly affected their work and their status. This was the condemnatory attitude of the reading public towards women-writers. Masculine condemnation of women's quill-driving was "compounded of many simples" but chiefly of a double fear: fear that women's new occupation might change their attitude towards domestic and social duties, and fear that women's achievements might eclipse those of men. For countless ages women had been given the sort of education which fitted them to become wives and mothers in this world, and saints either here or hereafter. These activities were conducive towards man's happiness, and were no encroachment on the territory he was accustomed to consider as peculiarly his own. But if women were to realise themselves in some separate way, if they, like men, should have an intellectual life, which, of necessity, must be led alone and which, as man knew, was richly self-rewarding, might not women become intolerable from the man's point of view? That is to say, not merely preoccupied with other than domestic details, but no longer looking up to man as the arbiter of her fate. "While thou keepest always looking up at me, and I down at thee, what horrid obliquities of vision may we not contract?"—obliquities not to be quickly cured, capable of distorting all one's impressions, and very painful if readjusted too suddenly. "I imagine," says the Duchess of Newcastle, "that I shall be censured by my own Sex; and Men will cast a smile of Scorne upon my Book, because they think thereby, Women incroach too much upon their Prerogatives; for they hold Books as their Crowne, and the Sword as their Scepter, by which they rule and governe. And very like they will say to me, as to the Lady that wrote the Romancy,

Work, Lady, Work, let writing books alone
For surely wiser women nere wrote one.

And she continues:

Spinning with the Fingers is more proper to our Sexe, than studying or writing Poetry, which is spinning with the Braine, but I, having no skill in the art of the first (and if I had, I had no hopes of gaining so much as to make me a garment to keep me from the cold) make me delight in the latter … which made me endeavour to Spin a Garment of Memory, to lapp up my Name, that it might grow to after Ages. I cannot say the web is strong, fine, or evenly spun, for it is a course piece; yet I had rather my Name should go meanly clad, than dye with cold.

Mean indeed was the reputation of women-writers, when they were so fortunate as to have any reputation at all. The reading public and the general public (those widening circles in the pool of opinion, obedient to the stones cast by the critics) divided women writers into three chief classes, each of which received a different judgment. First, there were the women-writers, who not only escaped condemnation, but were never even put on trial. These were the dilettante ladies, the literary dabblers, who wrote polite verse, translated plays and pious treatises, and kept their eyes well averted from the roaring pageant of life. Always they were of the privileged classes. Often they were the relatives of literary men, and won an amused tolerance or a degree of kindly commendation for their prococity. In the case of Sir Philip Sydney's sister and niece, they might have written the Heptameron, and not the slightest murmur of disapproval would have disturbed the pæans of loving praise which enveloped that illustrious family. Amongst its many virtues was a profound generosity in literary patronage, and so it was that the Countess of Pembroke was accounted a notable success in literature. Yet her works, so lavishly eulogised, consist of a play translated from the French, (never acted, and never even read by the critics who extolled it); a poem whose sole claim to recognition was that Spenser published it with his Astrophel; and a metrical version of the Psalms, in which she was helped by her brother and her chaplain. Nash, Spenser, Nicholas Breton, Whincop, Osborn, Langbaine and many others were loud in her praise, and her epitaph was written probably by Ben Jonson.

Let us compare the case of Marie de France, who made so notable a contribution to French literature:

Tous, à l'exception de Denys Pyramus, qui en a dit peu de chose, ont gardé un profound silence sur cette femme fort supérieure à son siècle par ses lumières, par ses sentiments, et par le courage qu'elle eut de dire la vérité a des oreilles mal disposées ou peu accoutumées a l'entendre.

What is the explanation of this silence? It is, apparently, that Marie belonged to the great company of women-writers who were condemned by their own generation. They were condemned because they were suspected either of looseness or eccentricity. If they were suspect on moral grounds, absence of evidence did not acquit them and the best they could hope for was the grudging Scottish judgment of "Not Proven." The third class, those who were obviously above moral reproach but were still suspect of some abnormality, was labelled "Queer." For whatever cause, it is clear that Marie was attacked, for she says:

Indeed, wherever there is a man or a woman of great fame, those who are envious of her good work often slander her, and with the intent to lessen her fame, play the part of a wretched cowardly dog, a cur that bites folk stealthily. But I will not leave off for this, even though backbiters and false flatterers work mischief against me—for to speak ill is their nature.

That the Duchess of Newcastle was considered queer is confirmed by all the criticisms of her own time. Queer she undoubtedly was, but she had sufficient genius to justify her eccentricity, a fact recognised by Disraeli. And though she showed a fine disregard for her critics, male and female, yet she was very conscious that current opinion was opposed to literary pursuits for a woman. She appeals endlessly for her right to be an author. Is it not better for her to occupy her time in writing than to behave loosely as so many Court ladies do? Is her occupation really less useful than painting and embroidery, or "the making of Flowers, Boxes, Baskets with Beads, Shells, Silke and Strawe?"

I hope you will spare me [she says to her readers] for the Harthe is swept cleane, and a Bason of Water with a cleane Towell set by, and the Ashes rak'd up; wherefore let my book sleep quietly, and the Watch-light burning clearly … and let it be still from your noise, that the feminine Cat may not Mew, nor the masculine Curs bark nor howle out railings to disturb my harmless Booke's rest.

The feminine Cats, however, continued to mew, as they had done from the beginning of women's literary efforts. Again and again the women-writers comment on this feminine attack upon them. "Nay, even my own sex, which should assert our prerogative against such detractors, are often backward to encourage the female pen." And writing long afterwards (1791) another woman says: "You know how female writers are looked down upon. The women fear and hate, the men ridicule and dislike them."

Still, it must be allowed that, apart from the prejudice and even the possible envy with which the non-literary woman regarded her more gifted sisters, there was very often a legitimate reason for objecting on moral grounds to the women who wrote fiction, and to the kind of fiction which they wrote. Men had created the standard of literary taste, and if women were to write at all they had to compete with men on their own ground. It was not considered improper that men should write loosely for a reading public (or for an audience) composed of women as well as men, nor even that they should write lewdly for women's particular instruction, as for example, did Jacques d'Amiens, whose "L'Art d'Amors" was merely one of many such works during the Middle Ages:

Chez Jacques d'Amiens les femmes ne sont pas considerées que comme des joujoux qui sont là uniquement pour le plaisir des hommes: il ne considère jamais le côté moral des choses; il n'a pas de sens moral.

It seems surprising that women might consume such literary repasts in the privacy of their bowers, but emphatically might not cater for such tastes in others. There is indeed a moral distinction in culpability, but it was not this consideration which inspired the general condemnation of women-writers. It is not for us to determine whether women-writers should have wished or attempted to evangelise the reading public. In any case, they could not possibly have done so. The fact that they entered into literary competition meant that they accepted the code established by the majority of writers in accordance with popular demand. Literary fame and, later, financial success depended on playing the game at least as well as their masculine adversaries, and playing a game involves the acceptance of definite rules and the developing of a particular technique. Women who wrote according to a standard of their own would have had as much hope of success as if they decided to play hockey with a crochet-hook. Playing even in the accepted way, they had to take it for granted that the umpire-critics would always be prejudiced, and that the public would howl them down at every opportunity. They were like a visiting team in hostile country where their every effort would be adjudged offside. If they were ever to win approval, they needed to be not merely as good as, but better than their opponents, and the difficulty of this was evident, when one reflects that they were heavily handicapped from the beginning. That they did adapt themselves to the rigours of the contest, that they did score so early in the game was a triumph—unpopular, and not without its price. Wounded reputation was to be expected, and at one period was really deserved, although even then the public put the cart before the horse. The literary women of the Restoration were not loose because they were writers. They were writers because they were loose. They were adventuresses before they adventured into literature. In a word, they were driven by circumstances to drive a quill, and they had the only equipment by which a woman of that time could succeed in letters—a great intellectual vigour and an absence of scruples. It was nothing much to them that, as women-writers, they lost caste. They had lost caste already. Mrs. Behn, Mrs. Centlivre, Mrs. Manley, Mrs. Pix, Mrs. Haywood and the rest of the battered crew, came to the profession of writing with no illusions, almost no education, a wide though ill-balanced experience of life, and an immense vigour of mind and body. They asked, and they got, no quarter, and they stamped their names defiantly into the minds of their contemporaries and into literary history. It is no mean feat at any time to make a living by free-lance writing. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was incredibly difficult. It was easier to starve than to eat by the sweat of one's brow, as even men-writers, from the days of Nash, Dekker, Fox and Drayton knew to their cost. To be a genius was no guarantee against the gutter or imprisonment for debt. It was necessary to find patrons and to keep them from tiring; to cultivate anyone who might have influence; to ingratiate oneself with editors and booksellers; to flatter the critics; to be hail-fellow-well-met with all sorts of people, in all sorts of places; to be ready to turn one's hand to anything—play-patching, "ghosting," political propaganda, rudimentary newspaper work; to haunt the greenrooms, and "keep in with" the players; to write plays for a small circle of loose-livers at a time when no decent woman would go to a theatre, and even the courtesans went masked. It will be admitted that no conventional woman could do all this, and if a group of unconventional women did it, then we must evaluate the gain entirely from the literary point of view. Nobody can contest the literary contributions of Mrs. Behn, Mrs. Centlivre, Mrs. Haywood, and even of Mrs. Manley. With the exception of Mrs. Centlivre (who excelled exclusively as a dramatist), these women wrote not only plays (which had an indirect but definite influence on the growth of fiction) but notably aided the development of the novel, both by using accepted forms, and by helping to initiate other forms. In their own time (and even now) women-writers of that particular period were strongly censured for their loose writing. One might as well blame an Arctic fox for changing his colour in the winter. He lives by adaptation, and so did they. From amongst the innumerable evidences that a double standard of criticism was exercised on a single standard of writing, we may perhaps mention one example. Aphra Behn, as brilliant as any writer of her generation, was loaded with obloquy for plays which, compared to those of Dryden and Congreve, might almost be considered pure. Dryden, writing to Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas in 1699, expressed his certainty that she would avoid the license which Mrs. Behn allowed herself "of writing loosely, and giving,...

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